Making Childhood Pay: Arthur Rolnick, Steven Rothschild, and ReadyNation

This post provides additional background on the ReadyNation Global Business Summit on Early Childhood Education that will take place at the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York City November 1-2, 2018. No U.S. educators or policy advocates may attend unless they come with at least four pre-approved business sponsors. Review the draft agenda here.

This is the second in a series. Read part one here.

Where did ReadyNation come from?

The idea emerged from a conversation three men had on a conference call during the summer of 2003:

  • Arthur Rolnick, senior researcher at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve
  • Robert Dugger, financial policy analyst and venture capitalist
  • James Heckman, University of Chicago economics professor

Its first incarnation, the “Investing in Kids Working Group,” focused on researching returns on early childhood investments, developing finance mechanisms, and crafting policy recommendations. Over the past fifteen years Dugger, in consultation with Heckman and Rolnick and with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, gradually built a structure to undergird a global investment market fueled by debt associated with provision of early childhood education services.

The push for early childhood education access is NOT being driven by a desire to meet the basic human needs of children. Rather financial interests that view children as cogs in a national workforce development program are pushing it; and they see preschoolers as lumps of human capital to be plugged into economic forecasts. This is all happening at a time when human services are being privatized in the name of scalable, outcomes-driven social entrepreneurship. The trailer for a new documentary, The Invisible Heart, on social impact bonds indicates how much capital is flowing into this new market.

Arthur Rolnick, Steven Rothschild, and Pay for Performance

Much of my research has focused on the Boston area (global finance), the Bay Area (tech), Chicago (blockchain), and New York (urban policy). So I was surprised to find what may be a key piece of this puzzle actually comes out of Minneapolis Minnesota. Though perhaps the fact that Minnesota is home to the nation’s first charter school, City Academy that opened in St. Paul in 1992, indicates local conditions favor neoliberal reforms.

Arthur (Art) Rolnick spent his 40-year career as a senior economic researcher at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank. During that time he also served as an associate professor in the economics department of the University of Minnesota and was co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The Collaborative houses the Chicago Longitudinal Study whose researchers are tracking the short and long term effects of early intervention on 1,000 students who attended Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers in 1984-85.

The Chicago Child-Parent Centers were service providers for one of the nation’s first two early childhood social impact bonds, begun in December 2014. The Chicago SIB included payout metrics tied to third grade literacy scores. Thus far the program has issued maximum payments to investors including Pritzker, Goldman-Sachs and Northern trust. According to this report from the Institute for Child Success, it is possible that over the seventeen-year time horizon for the SIB, $34 million could be paid out on the initial $16.9 investment.

Click here for the interactive version of this map.

Rolnick Rothschild Connection

Rolnick connected with Steven Rothschild, a former vice president at General Mills who left the corporate sector and launched Twin Cities RISE!, an “innovative anti-poverty” program that provided workforce training for low income adults, in the mid 1990s. Rothschild arranged with the state of Minnesota to provide services via an outcomes-based contracting arrangement where the organization was only paid when the “economic value” they provided to the state by increasing taxes (paid by those placed in jobs) and decreasing state expenditures (reduced costs for social services or incarceration) met approved targets.

Arthur Rolnick and Gary Stern of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve worked with Rothschild and Twin Cities Rise! to develop the economic analysis in support of the outcomes-based contracting initiative. Rolnick’s work with Rothschild eventually led him to examine the economic implications of early childhood interventions using data from the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study. In 2003, the year Rolnick had that auspicious phone call with Robert Dugger and James Heckman, he and and Rob Grunewald, regional economic analyst, put out the following report for the Minneapolis Federal Reserve: Early Childhood Development: Economic Development with a High Public Return.

In a 2006 profile of Rolnick, Minnesota journalist and blogger Kevin Featherly notes that report catalyzed $1 million in seed money for the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, a project of the Minnesota Business for Early Learning. It also put Rolnick and Grunewald on the lecture circuit for the next several years where they touted early childhood education as a prudent economic investment. Weatherly likened Rolnick’s schedule after the release of the report to that of a presidential candidate, sharing the stage with Jeb Bush at the National Governor’s Convention, the head of the Gates Foundation at the National Council of State Legislatures, and presenting to a global audience at the World Bank.

Rothschild who served on the boards of the Greater Twin Cities United Way and Minneapolis Foundation, went on to found the consulting firm Invest in Outcomes and write the Non Non-Profit, a book that exhorted non-profits to focus on the Return on Investment (ROI) and measurable economic outcomes of the services they provide. These ideas eventually led the Minnesota legislature to adopt the “Pay for Performance Act” in 2011 that appropriated $10 million for a pilot program to develop Human Capital Performance Bonds or HuCaps.

Rothschild provides a detailed explanation of how HuCaps function in a 2013 article for the San Francisco Federal Reserve’s publication Community Development Investment Review. HuCaps differ from social impact bonds in that they are true bonds and tap into the state bond markets; which, in theory, could give them access to significantly more capital-trillions of dollars rather than millions. In this podcast with the St. Louis Federal Reserve, Rothschild describes the model developed by Twin Cities RISE! as the basis for much of the social impact investing activities that have emerged over the past decade.

Continuum of InvestingSource for this slide.

As structured in the Minnesota legislation, the service provider is the one that takes the risk rather than the investor. If the provider is not able to meet the target metrics they are the ones who will not be paid. As a consequence, HuCaps have not yet taken off; see Propel Nonprofit’s analysis here.

HuCap StructureSource for this slide.

Nevertheless, there are those who have not given up on the Human Capital Performance Bond approach. Arnold Packer, former director of the education reform and workforce development SCANS 2000 Center based out of Johns Hopkins University, wrote about HuCaps for the Brookings Institution in 2015 (the co-chair of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making is Bruce Haskins also of Brookings). He noted that Milton Friedman was among the first to float the idea of leveraging private investment in human capital development. Take a minute to watch this one-minute video, from Institute for the Future, that portrays a college student contemplating entering into an income-sharing arrangement in exchange for tuition.

The idea that states could issue bonds for human capital in the same way they do for infrastructure like bridges, and that future savings will be created as people attain higher paying jobs due to their improved human capital, is central to the HuCap premise. In order to justify future cost savings, those receiving services must be tracked, so their “outcomes” can be measured over time. According to Arnold:

“This reform requires a shift in thinking on all sides, investors in human resources (early childhood education falls into this category) will have to consider statistically estimated benefits in terms of future cost savings and revenue as equivalent to projected revenue from a toll road. Government agencies will have to coordinate in order to structure attractive Human Resource bonds, since different agencies at different levels of government, benefit from the savings resulting from earlier investments.” Source

This model of finance, if ever widely adopted, would demand all recipients of public services (including education) be part of the government’s statistical estimate. Because many early-intervention services are directed at families, a person’s predictive profile would likely start to be amassed prenatally; babies assigned a Decentralized Identifier (DID), before they are even born. Estimates would be made about the likelihood a person would need to access services in the future, what those services would be, and what they would cost. Assessments would be made about the anticipated tax revenue a person would in turn generate over their lifetime. All of this data would need to be calculated in order to determine the impact metrics for the investors and structure “attractive human resource bonds.”

Before the rise of cloud-based computing, such a level of tracking would have been impossible. Having access to data to make those predictions would have been difficult to obtain. But that is rapidly changing in this world of Big Data, digital identity and “moneyball for kids.” The bi-partisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making concluded public hearings in February 2017, and the vast majority of those providing testimony favored creating enormous pools of data to inform public policy decisions.

Evidence Based Policy Making

Read the report.

Responsibilities of the Commission on Evidence Based Policy Making:

CEP charges

Things seem to be on hold for the moment with Human Capital Performance Bonds, but I feel strongly they may be simply waiting in the wings until Blockchain sovereign identity is normalized. An Illinois state Blockchain task force (note Pritzker, backer of early childhood SIBs is running a well-funded campaign for governor of Illinois now) has developed preliminary recommendations linking public service benefits to citizens using Blockchain technology. They even envision building in behavioral incentives tied to the provision of services through digital economic platforms. See the diagram below for an illustration of how they might incentivize food purchases.

Blockchain SNAP Nudge

Read the report.

Of course the implications of this type of manipulation for people who live in food deserts with limited access to fresh produce remains unaddressed. And it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see how other choices might be economically incentivized: which online course to take (the evidence-based one); which training program (the evidence-based one); which therapy provider (the evidence-based one); which medical treatment (the evidence-based one). But by whose measure? Who sets the metrics? Who profits when “evidence-based” standards are imposed?

How will independently-owned, neighborhood-based child care centers fare in this new landscape? If they are shuttered, what will the economic impacts be for communities, especially in economically distressed neighborhoods where such businesses are important sources of employment? Will small-scale providers be willing to collect the “human capital” data required to take advantage of pay for success investments? If they are willing, would they even have the money to purchase the technology (smart tables, anyone?) required to gather their “impact” evidence?

Smart Tables

Rob Grunewald, Rolnick’s collaborater on the Federal Reserve Early Childhood paper, is on the ReadyNation Summit planning committee. Rolnick is part of a workshop, “Scalable Success Stories in Early Childhood Programs,” at 11:45 on Friday, November 2nd.

Rolnick ReadyNation Agenda

The “pay for performance” finance mechanism dreamed up by Rothschild and Rolnick in the 1990s is particularly well-suited to this age of Internet of Things data collection, surveillance, predictive analytics, financialization, and economic precocity. This is why we should all be very concerned about ReadyNation’s Global Business Summit on Early Childhood; especially because it so clearly discourages early childhood educators and policy advocates from attending.

Next up, Dr. James Heckman and the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Pre-K Profit: ReadyNation Hosts Global Business Leaders In New York City This November

Business executives, government officials, and representatives of non-profits and NGOs from across the globe will gather in New York City this fall to discuss the business of early childhood. These are not people looking to open childcare franchises. No, that is not their “business.” The intent is more sinister, transforming our youngest learners into points of profit extraction under the guise of social justice and equity. Through technology and forms of “innovative finance” they aim to catalyze a speculative market in toddler data, using the lives of young, vulnerable learners as vehicles to move vast sums of social impact venture capital.

ReadyNation, a program of the Council for a Strong America, is hosting the summit, set to take place at the Grand Hyatt Hotel on November 1-2, 2018. Council for a Strong America, a bipartisan coalition of leaders from the law enforcement, military, business, religion, and athletics spheres, has placed influencers guiding early childhood education policy in every state. Their intent is to promote public-private partnerships that will generate investment returns for global finance while shaping children into a compliant citizenry conditioned to accept economic precariousness and digital surveillance while doing the bidding of the power elite.

The rise of pay for success, social impact bonds, development impact bonds, and outcomes-based contracting will usher in privatization of vast new areas of public services, including education and training at all levels from infants through human resource management (lifelong learning, reskilling). This is not merely a phenomenon of the United States; this summit is intended for a global audience, a neocolonial project driven by late-stage capitalism.

Remember the 2007 housing market crash? The fraud Goldman Sachs perpetrated, misleading investors to purchase financial instruments tied to sub-prime mortgage bonds? The $16.65 billion penalty Bank of America had to pay, the largest settlement between the government and a private corporation? Seeing financiers from both companies on stage at a 2014 ReadyNation event promoting early childhood social impact finance should give us pause. Watch the hour-long talk here. The excerpt below is taken from a two-minute clip where the moderator, Ian Galloway, introduces a panel on potential financing structures. Watch that here.

Ready Nation PFS Video 2014

“Christina Shapiro is a vice president at Goldman Sachs. You know, I’ve heard a lot that if you’ve seen one social impact bond, other people may have heard it, too. If you’ve seen one social impact bond, you’ve seen one social impact bond, right? That is true with one exception, and that is that just about every social impact bond out there has Goldman Sach’s fingerprints all over it. They are by far the leaders in the space. They are creating this marketplace out of thin air, and I commend Christina and her colleagues for their hard work on that front.”

Ian Galloway, Senior Research Associate, San Francisco Federal Reserve

To dig the hole deeper, the Council for a Strong America has accepted over $10 million from the Gates Foundation since 2006, including a $4.2 million grant in October 2015 to “engage stakeholders around the Common Core and high quality preschool.” Last summer in the run up to the fall 2018 elections, Gates granted the organization $300,000 to “educate potential future governors about the importance of college and career readiness in their state.”

Gates Grants to Council for a Strong America

ReadyNation’s speakers range from the World Bank, UNICEF, Omidyar Network, and the Girl Scouts to KPMG, the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, Learn Capital, and Sorenson Media (founded by Jim Sorenson, Utah tech entrepreneur and impact investor). A previous summit launched early-childhood campaigns in Romania, Australia, and Uganda in 2015. ReadyNation Romania and The Front Project (formerly ReadyNation Australia) will be participating.

What do summit attendees get for their $200 registration fee? ReadyNation touts the event as “the only training ground in the world for business people from outside the children’s sector to become unexpected and uniquely influential advocates for public and private investments in early childhood…Summit attendees from the U.S. must be business people or public officials; those from outside the U.S. can come from other sectors.” Children’s advocates and policy experts in early childhood education are specifically excluded from the conference unless they attend with at least four business people. In order to attend, one must to submit an online request.

Ready Nation Invite to attend

Why is ReadyNation so emphatic about excluding early childhood educators and policy advocates? Find out in Part 2: Making Childhood Pay: Arthur Rollick, Steven Rothschild and ReadyNation.

“Yes, I am an advisor for Ridge-Lane.” Superintendent Hite May 17, 2018

Hiate and SRC

Testimony to the Philadelphia School Reform Commission May 17, 2018

Read my previous post about Dr. Hite and Ridge-Lane, testimony given during Philadelphia City Council budget hearings on May 16, here.

“Ridge-Lane, Limited Partners is a merchant bank co-founded by former Governor Tom Ridge and R. Brad Lane. The firm “specializes in corporate strategy and venture development for private growth-stage technology companies.” Its website claims it is at the “apex of public and private sectors,” with over fifty well-connected advisors to broker corporate-government deals in information technology, sustainability, real estate, and education.

Ridge Lane has extensive ties to the military and to the Department of Homeland Security. Their team includes a dozen former governors, both Democrat and Republican. It includes thought leaders who seek to channel education into competency-based, workforce-aligned pipelines. There can be little doubt that Ridge Lane, and predatory firms of this type, aim to redesign government as a public-private partnership that serves the interest of social impact investors. In education this will happen through Pay for Success provisions embedded in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Dr. Hite, I was dismayed to see you listed as a senior education advisor on Ridge Lane’s website. How can you in good conscience serve as an advisor to a consulting firm that views public education as vehicle for profit taking? Our system is far from perfect and was never intended to serve all children well, particularly black and brown children. But do you actually believe partnerships with defense interests and hedge fund managers will create authentic, empowering learning experiences for Philadelphia’s students?

Clearly your motives align with those of the elite. Should we not be suspicious of plans to create an energy pilot program at Strawberry Mansion High School when Ridge Lane has its hands in sustainability ventures? Shouldn’t Ridge Lane’s ties to real estate development give Strawberry Mansion residents pause? They have legitimate concerns that proposed school transformation could result in them eventually being gentrified out of their homes. If Information Technology ends up being proposed as a workforce-training program at the school, will parents have to second-guess if you’re prioritizing the interests of students or investors? Will the twenty-first century work-force programs you offer end up weaving their children’s futures into Tom Ridge’s war and security state machine?

As Philadelphia’s schools transfer to mayoral control, it is our obligation to ensure sure they are not being handed over as points of extraction for private profit. We demand public money for public schools that serve the will of the people—not the war machine, not private capital, and not Big Data.

Tonight I stand with W.E.B. Dubois on the side of peace and justice and truth. I wish to confirm if you are in fact serving as an education advisor to Ridge Lane. If the answer is yes, do we have a right to know what services you render, and how you are compensated?”

Video of the conclusion of my testimony showing Dr. Hite and district legal counsel Lynn Rosner Rauch. Thanks to my friend Ken Destine.

Hite responded that he was indeed serving as an advisor to Ridge Lane, LP. His commitment is to participate every other month in phone calls with other team members from the education sector, and he is not compensated for those services. He and the district’s legal counsel noted that Hite’s involvement with Ridge Lane had been vetted and approved by the School Reform Commission. The lawyer described Hite’s participation in this venture as “a learning opportunity for us.” I asked about submitting an open records request for the vetting information. At the conclusion of the meeting I attempted to discuss parameters for an open records request about the vetting process for the Ridge Lane advising arrangement that the district’s counsel had described. The district’s lawyer was not particularly forthcoming with information that might inform such a request and said that the documents would largely be protected by attorney-client privilege. To be continued.


Speaking Out Against Pay for Success, Predatory Public-Private Partnerships and Dr. Hite’s Ties to Ridge-Lane, LP

As the parent of a public school student and a citizen of Philadelphia, I arrived at Council Chambers today to convey my concern about Superintendent William Hite’s involvement with former Governor Tom Ridge’s merchant banking advisory firm Ridge-Lane, LP and to get it on the record.  Full list of team members viewable as a PDF here.

I have serious reservations about how the city plans to finance the operation of our district, especially given the substantial needs of our students and the disinvestment our schools have suffered for so many years. This important work must be done with PUBLIC funding. Our schools are not charities and should not be remade as investment opportunities for venture capital.

I was the third speaker to present testimony on the proposed budget as it pertains to public education. Official video available here. City Council members in attendance at the time I spoke included: Council President Darrell Clarke, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Jannie Blackwell, Bill Greenlee, Allan Domb, and Bobby Henon. We were limited to three minutes, so the testimony I prepared had to be condensed somewhat. The full piece, including important information about the Fels Policy Research Initiative, can be read below.

“Ridge-Lane, Limited Partners is a merchant bank founded by former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge and R. Brad Lane, which “specializes in corporate strategy and venture development for private growth-stage technology companies.” Its website claims it is at the “apex of public and private sectors,” with over fifty well-connected advisors to broker corporate-government deals in information technology, sustainability, real estate, and education.

According to their website, Superintendent William Hite is one of Ridge-Lane’s senior education advisors. If Dr. Hite is setting public education policy while serving as an advisor to a powerful merchant bank, it is a serious conflict of interest and must be immediately addressed. It certainly makes interventions like the one taking place, against the will of the community, at Strawberry Mansion High School suspect.

Ridge Lane Education

It is a special concern that Ridge-Lane’s business model follows that of the social impact, “what works,” triple-bottom line venture capital machine.

  • It is a machine whose profit opportunities are fueled by austerity and public under-funding, allowing it to cloak financial speculation in social justice rhetoric.
  • It is a machine that breaks into public systems, so they can be remade for private profit.
  • It is a machine that views poverty management as a profitable and sustainable investment.

The business model Ridge Lane advances is a threat to community control of public education. If Philadelphia adopts a “Pay for Success,” approach to education finance:

  • digital devices will increasingly automate instruction;
  • online learning management systems will supplant face time with teachers and peers;
  • algorithms will track, discipline, and profile black and brown students; and
  • a majority of children will be callously managed as human capital for the gig economy.

Public-private partnerships may appear fiscally prudent, but laying out narrow metrics of “success” will limit educational offerings to those that service the needs of the contracts. This approach requires instruction be reverse engineered to generate the data needed to assess “impact.” In this way “Pay for Success” makes data-mining children a central focus-not relationships or care, not knowledge or humanity.

(Click here to watch “Gambling With Our Futures,” a 10-minute video that describes the origins of social impact finance with former UPenn president Judith Rodin and the Rockefeller Foundation and how data-mining is central to “innovative” finance.)

Does Mayor Kenney have PUBLIC funding to ensure ALL children have access to a healthy, safe school with adequate staff and supplies? Does City Council? No? Well, perhaps this is why our schools have been brought back under mayoral control. Do venture capitalists from Investors’ Circle, ImpactPHL and Social Capital Markets see dollar signs in our children’s trauma and crumbling buildings?


With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, predatory investors are poised to benefit from Pennsylvania’s systematic disinvestment in our school district. Merchant banks like Ridge Lane can package education-technology, social-emotional training, wrap-around services, and energy upgrades as social impact bonds. Voila! Private profit can be extracted from the public trust, from our children.

In the past few months I have attended workshops hosted by the Fels Policy Research Initiative.

  • There have been discussions about creating a new operating system for government.
  • There have been discussions about unlocking “value” from the public sector.
  • There have been discussions about philanthropies underwriting research on “innovative” school models; research the public is not allowed to know about.

New models of “Big Data” government are being pitched, models that will ultimately serve Ridge Lane’s clients, not the people. I am here to testify that the people say no to self-dealing and Pay for Success; to data-driven education and poverty mining; to using children as vehicles for financial speculation and to Third Way public-private partnerships.

Fund our schools with PUBLIC money, secure PILOTs, and restructure the property tax abatements. Ensure corporations pay their fair share of taxes, and investigate Dr. Hite’s relationship to Ridge-Lane Limited Partners.

Hite Ridge Lane Bio

Ridge Lane Partners Alpha by State

Badges Find Their Way to San Jose

Yesterday I watched a May 7, 2018 meeting held by the City Council of San Jose on education and digital literacy efforts related to the LRNG program, an initiative of the McCarthur Foundation-funded Collective Shift. Philadelphia is also a City of LRNG. Below is a five-minute clip in which they describe their digital badging program roll out.

Collecting an online portfolio of work-aligned skills is key to the planned transition to an apprenticeship “lifelong learning” model where children are viewed as human capital to be fed into an uncertain gig economy. Seattle Education’s recent post “Welcome to the machine” describes what is happening as Washington state follows the lead of Colorado and Arizona in pushing “career-connected” education.

Philadelphia’s LRNG program is called Digital On Ramps and is linked to WorkReady, the city’s youth summer jobs program. For the past several years children as young as fourteen have been encouraged to create online accounts and document their work experience using third party platforms. Opportunities to win gift cards and iPad minis have been used as incentives to complete the online activities. Within the past year the LRNG program has grown to include numerous badges related to creating and expanding online LinkedIn profiles. Microsoft bought Linked in for $26 billion in 2016. See screen shots below.

LRNG Contest

LRNG Contest 2

LRNG LinkedIn

Below are excerpts from two previous posts I wrote about badges and Digital On Ramps. Activity is ramping up around online playlist education and the collection of competencies/badges using digital devices. We need to be paying attention. The first is from “Trade you a backpack of badges for a caring teacher and a well-resourced school” posted October 2016.

“This is not limited to K12 or even P20, the powers that be envision this process of meeting standards and collecting badges to be something we will have to do our ENTIRE LIVES. If you haven’t yet seen the “Learning is Earning” video-stop now and watch it, because it makes this very clear. Badges are representations of standards that have been met, competencies that have been proven. Collections of badges could determine our future career opportunities. The beauty of badges from a reformer’s perspective is that they are linked to pre-determined standards and can be earned “anywhere.” You can earn them from an online program, from a community partner, even on the job. As long as you can demonstrate you have mastery of a standard, you can claim the badge and move on to the next bit of micro-educational content needed to move you along your personalized pathway to the workforce.

In this brave, new world education will no longer be defined as an organic, interdisciplinary process where children and educators collaborate in real-time, face-to-face, as a community of learners. Instead, 21st century education is about unbundling and tagging discrete skill sets that will be accumulated NOT with the goal of becoming a thoughtful, curious member of society, but rather for attaining a productive economic niche with as little time “wasted” on “extraneous” knowledge as possible. The problem, of course, is that we know our children’s futures will depend on flexibility, a broad base of knowledge, the ability to work with others, and creative, interdisciplinary thinking, none of which are rewarded in this new “personalized pathway/badging” approach to education.

The reformers needed to get data-driven, standards-based education firmly in place before spotlighting their K12 badge campaign. Low-key preparations have been in the works for some time. In 2011, Mozilla announced its intention to create an Open Badges standard that could be used to verify, issue, and display badges earned via online instructional sites. The MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) supported this effort. In 2013 a citywide badging pilot known as “The Summer of Learning” was launched in Chicago. 2013 was also the year that the Clinton Global Initiative joined the badge bandwagon. They have since agreed to incorporate badges into their operations and work to bring them to scale globally as part of the Reconnect Learning collaborative.

Other partners in the “Reconnect Learning” badging program include: The Afterschool Alliance, Badge Alliance, Blackboard, Digital Promise, EdX, ETS, Hive Learning Networks, Pearson, Professional Examination Service and Council for Aid to Education, and Workforce.IO.

The Chicago Summer of Learning program expanded nationally and has since evolved into LRNG Cities, a program of the MacArthur Foundation. According to their website: “LRNG Cities combine in-school, out-of-school, employer-based and online learning experiences into a seamless network that is open and inviting to all youth. LRNG Cities connect youth to learning opportunities in schools, museums, libraries, and businesses, as well as online.”

In some ways such a system may sound wonderful and exciting. But I think we need to ask ourselves if we shift K12 funding (public, philanthropic, or social impact investing) outside school buildings, and if we allow digital badges to replace age-based grade cohorts, report cards, and diplomas, what are we giving up? Is this shiny, new promise worth the trade off? Many schools are shadows of their former selves. They are on life support. It is very likely that expanding the role of community partners and cyber education platforms via badging will put the final nail in the coffin of neighborhood schools.” Read full post here.

The second is from “Will “Smart” Cities lead to surveilled education and social control?” posted July 2017.

“Philadelphia has been on the Smart Cities’ bandwagon since 2011 when it teamed up with IBM to develop Digital On Ramps, a supposedly “ground breaking” human capital management program. As part of this initiative Philadelphia Academies, led at the time by Lisa Nutter (wife of Democrats for Education Reform former mayor Michael Nutter), developed a system of badges for youth that promoted workforce-aligned “anywhere, any time learning.” You can view a 2012 HASTAC conference presentation on the program starting at timestamp 50:00 of this video.  Lisa Nutter now works as an advisor to Sidecar Social Finance, an impact investment firm, and Michael Nutter is, among other things, a senior fellow with Bloomberg’s What Works Cities. This relationship map shows some of the interests surrounding the Digital On Ramps program. Use this link for an interactive version.

Digital On Ramps has since combined with Collective Shift’s initiative City of LRNG operating with support from the MacArthur Foundation. Besides Philadelphia, ten other Cities of LRNG are spread across the country: Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Kansas City, Orlando, San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento, Washington, DC and Springfield, OH.

The premise is the “city is your classroom” where students “learn” through playlists of curated activities that are monitored via phone-based apps. Many of these cities are also “smart” cities. The Philadelphia program is presently housed at Drexel University, an institution that is involved in education technology research and development, that is a partner in Philadelphia’s Promise Zone initiative(education is a major component), and whose president John Fry served a term on the board of the Philadelphia School Partnership, the city’s ed-reform engine. Drexel’s graduate school of education is currently the lead on an unrelated NSF-funded STEM educational app and badging programbeing piloted with Philadelphia teachers in the Mantua neighborhood within the Promise Zone. It is touted as “an immersive, mentor-guided biodiversity field experience and career awareness program.”

In April 2017, Drexel’s School of Education hosted a lecture by DePaul University’s Dr. Nichole Pinkard entitled “Educational Technologies in a Time of Change in Urban Communities,” in which the MacArthur-funded 2013 Chicago Summer of Learning pilot was discussed. In this clip from the Q&A that followed the lecture, an audience member raised concerns about credit-bearing out-of-school time learning in the ecosystem model.

The 2011 IBM summary report for Digital On Ramps noted that among the four top priority recommendations was the creation of a “federated” view of the citizen in the cloud.” Of course, 2011 predates developments like Sesame Credit, but looking at it now I can’t help but conjure up an image of the “federated citizen in the cloud” as portrayed in Black Mirror’s dystopian Nosedive episode.

Digital On-Ramps appears to be a prototype for a career pathway, decentralized learning ecosystem model for public education. As the task-rabbit, gig economy becomes more entrenched with freelancers competing for the chance to provide precarious work at the lowest rate (see this short clip from Institute for the Future’s video about Education and Blockchain), what will it mean to reduce education to a series of ephemeral micro-credentials? And what dangers are there in adding behavioral competencies from predictive HR gaming platforms like Knackinto the mix? Tech and human capital management interests are counting on the fact that people are intrigued by new apps. We’re predisposed to seek out pleasurable entertainment. Gamification is both appealing and distracting, consequently few people contemplate the downside right away, if ever.” Read full post here.


Beware The “Learning Engineers”

I watched Nova’s “School of the Future” when it premiered in the fall of 2016. The vision of education it promotes, one steeped in rapid innovation and technology, was profoundly disturbing. Funded by the David H. Koch Science Fund and the Carnegie Corporation, a powerful advocate for digital education and competency-based learning, the episode tried to normalize the use of MRIs as a tool for evaluating learning. At the time, I found the producer’s repeated references to MRIs strange. Now, seeing how social emotional learning, ed-tech, gamification, brain science, impact investing, behavioral economics, and digital medicine are beginning to intersect, everything is starting to click.

Reformers hope to convince the public that education is a science that should be evaluated using quantitative measures. As they work on this front, they are also expanding cyber education nationally, not just 100% virtual schooling but also blended/hybrid “personalized learning” programs like Mark Zuckerberg’s Summit Basecamp. Such models demand hardware, software, telecommunications, and cloud-computing contracts that divert public funds from paid human staff into corporate accounts. It also creates favorable conditions for ed-tech and digital therapeutic “interventions” venture capitalists plan to use to gamble on early-childhood, literacy and workforce outcomes via Pay for Success contracts.

As anyone who has been following Cambridge Analytica knows, digital platforms generate extraordinarily rich data profiles on individuals. And it’s not just academic data that is captured. Industry is now demanding metrics on “soft skills” and “mindsets.” Adoption of biometric monitoring and video games with embedded psychometrics has vastly expanded the amount of data being aggregated on children. See this video promoting BrainCo’s brain wave monitoring classroom wearables created in 2015 by Harvard’s innovation lab.

Affectiva Personalized Education

Affectiva uses voice and facial recognition software to track real-time emotions of device users interacting with online content. That company spun out of the MIT Media lab and contracts with global brands to test advertising campaigns; but it is also used to gather data about student engagement with online education programs (see above screen shot). You can watch a short clip from Rosalind Picard’s presentation on the software from the 2017 Wharton Business School’s People Analytics conference here.

Affectiva at Wharton

And in this one-minute clip, also from Wharton’s People Analytics conference, Guy Halfteck of Knack, discusses that capacity of online gaming to unlock information about a job candidate’s personality. Watch it here. The Rockefeller Foundation, the initiator of the global impact investment movement, provided start up funding for Knack, software that combines gaming, neuroscience, machine learning and predictive analytics to assess the workforce competencies of players.


Wharton People Analytics Knack

In the clip, Halfteck describes online games as rich machines into which you can immerse people to evaluate their creativity, emotional intelligence, leadership qualities and resilience. The company claims Knack will be used to surface undiscovered talent in “opportunity youth.” However in a world where automation is making full-time employment an increasingly rare commodity, it seems far more likely that it will be used to negatively profile vulnerable young people rather than help them.

On January 30, 2018, Dr. Melina Uncapher of the University of California San Francisco came to Philadelphia to speak about learning engineering at Drexel University’s ExCITe Center. Her talk concluded the center’s annual “Learning Innovation” conversation series. You can watch it here.

Drexel Uncapher
Click here to watch.

She describes a growing movement where powerful interests are reimagining learning as an “applied science” where instruction can be administered in a clinical way, not unlike a medical treatment. She describes the creation of a new kind of career, a “learning engineer” to bridge the fields of learning science and classroom instruction. A learning engineer? I have so many questions:

Who is being subjected to this engineering?

Does it vary by race, class, and gender?

Engineered by whom?

Engineered with what technology?

Using whose standards?

To what end?


Uncapher’s talk emphasized the need for “evidence-based” education. Instruction must be measureable so they can “tell the leeches from the penicillin.” Of course this feeds the emerging narrative touting the importance of “efficacy” and “return on investment,” all of which is tied back into Pay for Success finance. In the clip below, Uncapher describes a research project she is carrying out with one thousand elementary school students in Santa Clara County, CA.

Santa Clara Neuroscape
Click here to watch.

Faculty from Stanford and UC Berkeley are participating in Uncapher’s three-year study funded by the National Science Foundation. A summary of the $750,000 award can be accessed here. The first two years involved extensive mapping of the executive function of the participating students using video games. Data on attention, memory, and goal management was captured via ACE (Adaptive Cognitive Evaluation), a platform that delivers 5-minute online assessments via adaptive algorithms. Video tutorials, graphics, and “motivating” feedback are built into the system. In this final year of the study, Uncapher will use digital interventions to attempt to “build” the executive function of these students.

Neuroscape ACE

Uncapher is also the director of the education program at the Neuroscape Lab, which began at UCSF in 2005 but was launched in its present form by Dr. Adam Gazzaley in 2016. The lab supports research into how video game technology can be incorporated into diagnostic and therapeutic digital products that “improve mind quality.”

Akili Interactive Labs is a for-profit enterprise that Gazzaley spun out of Neuroscape. Gazzaley is on its board and is its senior science advisor. Thus far the company has secured $72 million in venture capital from Canepa Healthcare, Jazz Venture Partners, PureTech Health, Amgen Ventures, and Merck Ventures.

AKL-T01 is a prescription pediatric ADHD digital video game treatment that completed clinical trials at Duke University last December. The company continues to advance their product through the regulatory process. It “looks and feels like a high-end video game, leveraging art, music, storytelling and reward cycles to keep patients engaged and immersed for the delivery of therapeutic activity with excellent compliance.” According to the website, they have many other digital treatments in the pipeline. If Akili attains FDA approval for their ADHD game and is able to get insurance companies to pay for it, an enormous new market for prescription digital therapies will open up.

Akili pipeline

I fear if we don’t start to speak up now, within the next five years it may become “normal” to deploy digital protocols to “fix” non-conforming children. Reduce face-to-face interaction and ramp up data-driven brain science. Picture data dashboard managers issuing personalized digital gaming scrips to “optimize” academic performance and mental health. Special needs students, English language learners, and those labeled “behavior problems” will be most at risk for remediation by systems designed to extract data and generate profit for investors.

We must challenge the National Science Foundation’s decision to fund a research program intended to “engineer” the executive function of Santa Clara County’s children. The data they are gathering on students in their public school will be used to build a base of research Neuroscape can hand over to Akili to refine and develop commercial products. Our children’s minds do not belong to the disruptors of Silicon Valley or the financial predators of Boston. Keep your MRIs, your immersive VR faux realities, and your human capital predictive analytics. Instead, let us come together as human beings and build a future that is neither financialized nor data-driven. Our children deserve nothing less.

Prescription Video Games


Don’t Give Us A Complex: Resisting the CBE Takeover of Strawberry Mansion High School

SRC Testimony in Support of Strawberry Mansion High School

As a resident of Philadelphia and a parent of a public school student, I believe it is vitally important that we stand with the residents of Strawberry Mansion and support their efforts to save their neighborhood comprehensive high school. Their demands are 1) no complex 2) give the school an incoming freshman class and 3) restore the resources and programs that have been taken from Strawberry Mansion. Numerous community members came out to last Thursday’s SRC meeting to oppose this plan. Read coverage from the Public School Notebook here or watch filmed testimony here. Below is a three-minute video of my testimony from the April meeting of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. You can read it here.

Unlocking Value at Public Expense

The School District of Philadelphia is attempting to “phase-out” Strawberry Mansion’s comprehensive high school in order to replace it with a “complex.” I suspect the intent is to use the facility as an incubator for competency-based education ventures designed to feed workforce development Pay for Success investment opportunities. Likely candidates include Big Picture, Youth Build, Outward Bound and spin-offs from the district’s CBE “innovation school” models. Competency-Based Education (also known at Proficiency or Mastery-Based education) is being actively fought in many communities in Maine, an early adopter state. As the deadline to implement proficiency-based diplomas there nears, many are speaking out about the tremendous problems with this so-called “innovative” educational model.

The same day as the SRC meeting, I attended the second annual “Break/Throughs: New Ideas for Policy” Conference co-hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s FELS Policy Research Initiative and the College of Arts and Sciences. The focus of the conference was how FELS could “unlock value” from partnerships with local government. One of the panels featured Clare Robertson-Kraft, founder and director of ImpactED. She stated that in June they would be presenting findings from a major research initiative funded by Pew Charitable Trust and Barra Foundation on the district’s innovation schools.


Robertson-Kraft said the event would draw a national audience, but when asked during Q&A if members of the public would be able to attend she deferred, saying that perhaps they could let some of the people attending the workshop know about it. While these “innovation” schools may technically be considered public schools, they are really test-beds for Ed Reform 2.0. Reformers don’t want the public in on this conversation until their “privatized-light” model is firmly established. I sense this June presentation will set the stage for an innovation love fest intended to kick-off a new round of school redesign that involves “public-private” innovation models taking over vulnerable schools like Strawberry Mansion, schools that have been starved of students and deprived of resources.

Workshop School Funders

The diagram above (click here for interactive version) shows some of the grants flowing into the Workshop School, a model being considered for the Strawberry Mansion “complex.” It also shows the funders of the Next Generation Learning Challenges Initiative, the source of the award that allowed the pilot two-year “Sustainability Workshop” to scale into a full four-year high school program. These small schools require significant private investment to operate, which makes them hard to keep going over the long term and likely to reflect the interests of their funders, many of whom push hybrid-blended learning. Digitally-platformed instruction is what the investors must have in place to scale automated evaluation of pay for success contracts down the line.

Priming the Pump for Impact Investing

During Q&A for another Break/Through panel, a member of the audience noted that four blocks away, at the Cira Center, a major social impact investment conference was taking place. “Total Impact,” co-sponsored by ImpactPHL and The Good Capital Project, an initiative of Social Capital Markets (SOCAP), featured national figures like Jim Sorenson. Local presenters included Jay Coen Gilbert, KIPP board member and founder of BLab; Sherryl Kuhlman of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative; and John Moore of Investor’s Circle and ImpactPHL. Impact investors are definitely on the move, positioning themselves to take advantage of provisions in the federal budget that earmarked $100 million to seed the pay for success market.

Susquehanna Foundation Profile 2013-2015

The above profile of the Susquehanna Foundation’s growth in assets shows how social impact capital is positioning itself since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Susquehanna Foundation is one of the funders of the Workshop School. This foundation is a vehicle for Jeffrey Yass’s firm Susquehanna International Group, a venture capital firm grounded in game theory. Jeffrey and Janine Yass are major funders of the Philadelphia School Partnership. Janine also served on the board of the Center for Education Reform, a catalyst for Ed Reform 1.0 and Ed Reform 2.0 initiatives.  Given the $130 million jump in endowment assets that happened between 2015 and 2016, I’m betting that Workshop School and other “innovative” education models will be well positioned to receive additional capital if they can demonstrate sufficient “impact” and generate solid rates of return. The pressure of market forces is why the district is making its moves on Strawberry Mansion now. They need space into which these investment programs can expand.

Merchant banking interests are also ramping up to take advantage of opportunities embedded in the Every Student Succeeds Act. One of these is Ridge-Lane, Limited Partners, described on their website as an “advisory and merchant bank at the apex of public and private sectors.” The Ridge of Ridge-Lane is former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. He has assembled dozens of advisors to assist with his P3 (Public-Private-Partnership) plans to extract as much value as possible from the public sector. One of his team members is none other than Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite. Education is one of Ridge-Lane’s four focus areas, so it is not surprising that they have lined up a stable of privatization-minded, tech-friendly consultants like John Deasy, Jack Markell, and Michael Crow.

Ridge Lane Education

Ridge-Lane is targeting four areas for investment: information technology, sustainability, education, and real estate. In his closing remarks for the April SRC meeting, Superintendent Hite noted that Strawberry Mansion has been selected to become one of three energy pilot schools. The program involves making repairs to buildings that would result in improved energy efficiency. An article in the Public School Notebook stated the program would connect students in Career and Technical Education to the building trades, though it was unclear from the article if the intention was to actually employ student labor as part of the program.

Now imagine how a “Future Ready” Strawberry Mansion “complex” might fit into this business model as a Pay for Success venture. All that would need to be done is to set up some coding gyms or cyber-security training for the IT part. The energy pilot and training in trades would address sustainability and education/workforce development, and the real estate angle would come in as they gentrify the East Park area, further marginalizing black residents in this historically-black community.

I think we can safely assume this whole transformation will come with the blessing of the city’s elite. During the FELS Break/Through discussions John Kromer, housing policy analyst, saw the gentrification of the area surrounding Temple University as a positive (no mention of displacement), while Dirk Krueger, Interim Chair of Economics, spoke at length about the close relationship the university’s economics department and graduate students maintain with the research wing of the Federal Reserve. Remember, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve sponsored the Pay for Success “Capital for Communities” event with former Mayor Nutter in 2015.

Selling Innovation

During a recent community meeting at Strawberry Mansion High School, participants debriefed about a tour of the Workshop School that the district had set up to sell them on the idea. But they weren’t sold on it; they want to keep their comprehensive high school status.

The Workshop School started in 2011 when several teachers removed an award-winning Hybrid X automotive program from West Philadelphia High School. That program was then used as a centerpiece for The Sustainability Workshop, a two year program funded as part of a US Department of Energy grant linked to redevelopment of the Navy Yard. In the years following, the school has been sustained via substantial infusions from charter and privatization allied organizations including: the Philadelphia School Partnership, William Penn Foundation, and Lenfest Foundation.

The pilot program was brought to scale in 2013 when Simon Hauger and Matthew Riggins, co-founders, received a large award from the Next Generation Learning Challenges Initiative. Look back to the map and you’ll see all the expected ed-tech interests flowing into that program. Considerable grant funding for the school is run through a non-profit called Project Based Learning, Inc. A review of the 990 tax forms for the organization (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016) raised some questions for me. Below is a table of select financial measures from when the nonprofit was founded through 2016, the latest 990 filing available through the Foundations Directory Online.

Project Based Learning Inc. 990 2010-2016

My questions are as follows:

  1. How much money can a “public school” accept from private sources before it is no longer a fully-public school? Note the annual budget in 2014.
  2. Why is the board list missing or incomplete (see below)? The 990s indicate that most years there are nine voting members governing the organization, but only six names were ever provided. In recent years Mr. Riggin is the only one listed.Workshop School Board List
  3. If a school operates as a public-private partnership, how are management decisions made and carried out? What is the role of the non-profit board? What is the role of school district staff and community members?
  4. The 990 forms indicate that in 2015 and 2016, eight people were paid by Project Based Learning, Inc. Are these people also employed by the School District? Are they private contractors? Are they working with students? Are there liability issues surrounding that?
  5. Why were the books of the nonprofit kept at the home of the school’s principal up until 2015?
  6. Is this nonprofit set up specifically to serve the Workshop School? There is nothing to indicate that. Instead, it seems like it could become a consultancy for any type of project-based learning initiative or related professional development program independent of a particular school.

Project Based Learning Summary 990

The School District is putting the hard sell on Strawberry Mansion to accept some form of project-based learning model and the “complex” format. It could be an expansion of the Workshop School or some other program or an assortment of small programs. But they don’t want that. They don’t. And even if they did there are serious questions we should be asking about expanding models of education that rely on private investment, particularly as we enter a moment when pressure will be building to adopt Pay for Success financing.

How we pay for our schools affects how education is delivered. Outcomes-based finance will drive adoption of more and more educational technology. This will generate data and isolate students, particularly the students who most need human contact. Please email or tweet Superintendent Hite and tell him “No Complex” on behalf of Strawberry Mansion ( or @SDPHite). We want humane schools. We want publicly-funded schools. We want schools that encourage discussion, engagement, and thoughtful questioning rather than human capital compliance. Thanks in advance!